First Nighter: Hot Times Right Now at London's National Theatre


LONDON--For whatever reason--recent artistic director Rufus Norris's enthusiastic approach?--things at the National Theatre are popping. The following is only a sampling of what's going on, just about all of it hot stuff:

As You Like It--At first I wasn't certain William Shakespeare's comedy, with Polly Findlay directing, was going to be as I like it. What's viewed on the Olivier stage as the audience enters is something that could easily pass for a stock-exchange computer room with traders in colorful uniforms circulating among the desks. The floor looked like a color-field painting. The initial scenes, involving the court where Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) and Celia (Patsy Ferran) run into the problems sending them into the forest of Arden, were played in a cramped downstage area. Then when Arden looms and Orlando (Joe Bannister) is also on the run, those desks are abruptly cleared and along with the chairs are lifted upward and upward into a metallic-tree environment, thanks to set designer Lizzie Clachan. A thoroughly pleasurable romp ensues. The entire cast is a treat, especially Paul Chahidi as Jaques. His depiction of self-absorbed melancholy is particularly humorous.

Waste--Harley Granville-Barker's drama, written in 1906 and then rewritten until 1936 when it was finally allowed to be presented under relaxed rules favoring Granville-Barker's intentions, is receiving a brilliant outing, as directed by Roger Michell and in several elegant sets by Hildegard Bechtler. The story of promising politician Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) and how his dalliance with married Amy O'Connell (Olivia Williams), who dies as the result of a crude abortion, ruins his career is not only harrowing but in many ways feels relevant to contemporary political maneuvering. The acting in each of the four scenes is superlative, almost consistently carried off in a smart melodramatic manner echoing the writing. The third scene, in which Cyril Horsham (Michael Elwyn), about to become prime minister, discusses Trebell's fate with cabinet appointees is a marvel of writing and performing. To miss this production, if given the opportunity to see it, would be nothing short of a terrible waste. Norris--ever inestimably imaginative--composer Damian Albarn and book writer-lyricist Moira Buffini have brought their reshaped Alice in Wonderland update from the Manchester International Festival to the Olivier with mixed results. The most praiseworthy aspect of the Lewis Carroll revise is that it boldly speaks to audiences--children especially--in the language of today's streets. For one relatively mild example, either Tweedledum or Tweedledee, now Dum (Sam Archer) and Dee (Leon Cooke), gets to say not once but twice, "I am a dick." (Not all stateside communities would go for this, but the local crowd eats it up with a spoon.) This Alice (Carly Bawden) has a white father (Paul Hilton), a black mother (Golda Rothsheuvel) and an infant brother (puppet designer Toby Olié supplies the tot) who urinates whenever and wherever. Cleverly, the looking glass through which Alice travels to is the screen on her electronic device. What she encounters there are denizens in Katrina Lindsay's eye-popping costumes, and some terrifically energetic performers, including herself. Too bad that much of the dramaturgy is messy and the songs are instantly forgettable. The moral of this enterprise (remember that Carroll didn't go in for explicit morals) is: Be happy being yourself. It's hardly earth-shattering advice.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom--If anyone has a suggestion as to how director Dominic Cooke's production of August Wilson's play can be improved, I'd like to hear it. As far as I'm concerned, it's flawless as it follows the troubled 1920s recording session during which the famous black singer (Sharon C. Clarke) throws her considerable weight around, and her musicians (Clint Dyer on trombone, Lucian Msamati on piano, Giles Terera on bass, and O-T Fagbenle on trumpet) air their differences to ultimately deep trouble. Wilson's intention is to show the daily bruising that racism causes and the more than occasional tragedy. As the fractious quartet mixes it up in the claustrophobic rehearsal room that set designer Ultz raises and lowers from the stage floor, the two white characters--Rainey's manager Irvin (Finbar Lynch) and studio owner Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) often (symbolically?) remain above the fray in the lofty recording booth. The message sent by way of Wilson's usual hypnotic speeches and musical interludes is that more often than not, oppressed people destroy each other rather than their oppressors. One intriguing aspect of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (the pun built into the dance-referring title doesn't go unremarked) is the implication that there are two kinds of racist thought: justified and unjustified.

Cleansed--If Katie Mitchell hasn't directed a Sarah Kane work before this one, she's probably just been biding her time until she could. She has to have been raring to get her hands on such reliably excoriating material--as well as put her design team to work, which certainly means set designer Alex Eales and, particularly, sound designer Melanie Wilson. Now she's grabbed hold of the late Kane's Cleansed. (Kane committed suicide in 1999, at 28.) As for the determined playwright, her perhaps never implicitly stated aim was to demonstrate to theatergoers that their attendance was a form of voyeurism. She never achieved that end more successfully than with this horrific, intermissionless two-hour vision in which Grace (Michelle Terry) enters an institutional hell in a red dress hoping to retrieve the clothes of her dead brother Graham (Graham Butler, playing the not-so-dead sibling) but instead is witness to, and victim of, a series of tortures. A few of them are perpetrated on Robin (Matthew Tennyson) and Woman (Natalie Klamar), as surrogates, also in red. That's not to mention tormented gay lovers Rod (George Taylor) and Carl (Peter Hobday) and the apparent doctor called Tinker (Tom Mothersdale) who runs the operation with the help of three men hooded in black. Somehow, Grace is intended to be a stand-in for the spectators who silently witness the disgusting acts and are eventually intended to be as cleansed as Grace. (The name isn't accidental.) Because this is Katie Mitchell, it's pulled off brilliantly but may not be for all tastes.

Evening at the Talk House--Twenty years ago, Wallace Shawn's darkly scintillating play The Designated Mourner bowed here--with Mike Nichols giving his last and equally scintillating stage performance. He played a spineless fellow reporting on an unidentified culture spiraling into oblivion. This, of course, is one of Shawn's favorite themes, if not his most favorite. He raises the subject again with Evening at the Talk House, under Ian Rickson's brave direction, but not with anything near his previous panache. Robert (Josh Hamilton), a playwright who's moved to a television series, enters affably discussing a reunion arranged for several participants in a production years back of a play of his. The expected guests arrive at the Talk House, their old watering hole, still run by Nellie (Anna Calder-Marshall) with maid Jane (Sinead Matthews). An unexpected attendee is Dick (Shawn himself), once popular on his own boob-tube series but long since gone to seed. As the pals bring each other up to date, it turns out at least three of them have operated as government-employed assassins. In other words, we're in another of Shawn's fascistically inclined societies. (Cynics might speculate that, given what's happening today throughout the Republican campaign, Shawn's future isn't so far away). Once things get going, nothing much occurs that leads anywhere, although there's a well-performed late two-handed exchange between Robert and Jane that reveals him to be in desperate straits. By the way, more than once Dick declares he was never a good actor. Considering that so many of Shawn's focal characters seem autobiographical, an onlooker may wonder if he's talking about his own thesping abilities.

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